Andrew Yang on why universal basic income won't make people lazy

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wants to give every American $1,000 a month – but will that disincentivize work?

Andrew Yang on why universal basic income won't make people lazy
(Photo credit should read JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images)
  • 2020 Democratic president candidate Andrew Yang discussed his views on universal basic income with The Fifth Column.
  • Andrew Yang is the only candidate who's made universal basic income central to his platform.
  • His 'Freedom Dividend' plan aims to give every American – no matter their income – $1,000 a month.

A crowded field of 2020 Democratic presidential election candidates has left many executive hopefuls wasting no time trying to distinguish themselves. But while some are focusing on identity issues or a return to pragmatism, Andrew Yang is the only candidate who's made universal basic income central to his campaign.

The 44-year-old entrepreneur hopes to implement a universal basic income – called 'The Freedom Dividend' – that would give every American over the age of 18 a monthly check for $1,000. The plan aims to cushion the damages that automation and technology bring on the American workforce. To Yang, these job losses are part of a disruptive phase that's both reminiscent of past industrial revolutions and far from over. He says his universal basic income plan would help displaced workers and also:

  • Grow the economy by 12.56 to 13.10 percent—or about $2.5 trillion by 2025.
  • Increase the labor force by 4.5 to 4.7 million people.
  • Allow more Americans to become entrepreneurs.

Yang recently sat down with Kmele Foster, an entrepreneur and media commentator who hosts "The Fifth Column" podcast, to discuss his universal basic income plan. The whole episode is worth a listen, but one of the most interesting bits came when Yang addressed the question: Won't the Freedom dividend disincentivize work?

Foster mentioned how his mother lost her job at a consulting firm because she'd developed a narrow skill-set that became noncompetitive, and he suggested that she'd be less interested in broadening her skills if she were to receive $12,000 annually from the government. Yang disagreed.

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"I would suggest that her ability to access, like, additional resources and training would be enhanced by the fact that she has one-thousand bucks a month," Yang said.

"But incentives and ability are different things," Foster said. "So her ability might be enhanced, but her incentives might be diminished, and it's possible for those two things to happen simultaneously."

"You know, I'm just not a huge believer in extreme financial scarcity as, like, the necessary position to be in in order to induce someone to try and find something to do," Yang said. "It's, like, most people in my opinion, will try and find something to do, because they want to find something to do."

The argument that plans like The Freedom Dividend would disincentivize work is a common criticism of UBI, and the logic is usually rooted in a longstanding criticism of welfare: Giving people free money makes them lazy.

But there's a fundamental difference between welfare and UBI: Welfare essentially rewards people for not getting a job, because doing so would mean they can't receive money anymore. This disincentivizes work. Meanwhile, people wouldn't have to meet any conditions to receive Yang's dividend, meaning there'd be no reward for staying unemployed.

Yang nodded to research suggesting that UBI programs don't significantly change work levels. One oft-cited UBI study, conducted on the Alaska Permanent Fund, found no real impact on full-time employment rates, and actually showed that part-time employment increased by 17 percent.

"It is reasonable to expect an unconditional cash transfer, such as a universal income, to decrease employment," the authors said. "A key concern with a universal basic income is that it could discourage people from working, but our research shows that the possible reductions in employment seem to be offset by increases in spending that in turn increase the demand for more workers."

Yang echoed this point about consumers' increased buying power, and also said he believes that his proposed dividend would generate economic value because it'd allow more Americans to experiment with entrepreneurism.

"You're going to end up creating hundreds of thousands of new entrepreneurs, guaranteed, if you have something like the Freedom Dividend, because there are so many Americans who would love to take a shot," Yang said.

"Now, you could argue that, 'Hey, maybe some of these people should not be being entrepreneurs [...]' But you'd wind up with a really significant number of diamonds in the rough, and the way our system works is that a number of diamonds could potentially create so much value that it doesn't really matter what happens with the five people next to them. So, there would be, to me, if anything, an unlocking of human capital that would end up enhancing our system's dynamism."

You can check out the full episode of The Fifth Column podcast here.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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